The airport was extremely efficient and friendly, we westerners seem to have an arrogance that the rest of the world is disorganised and somehow shabby however I must say the East has got the service industry totally down pat. The bags arrived almost before we did, the staff helped us find the cab with a smile, and a free bottle of water.
When we went to Thailand the only rude people we met were at Manchester airport on our way home and on first impressions Vietnam is the same. The poverty in the country was immediately apparent once we were out on the road however there is also massive apparent wealth. I found the large high end vehicles (fully pimped and tinted) tackling traffic alongside the crowds of ancient cycles and motorcycles quite disconcerting. The bikes were loaded with everything from a family of five to a wardrobe although the most impressive in my eyes was the water man who was carrying at least 20 empty water fountain bottles; I was hoping a breeze wouldn’t catch him off guard.
We met our fellow travellers and guide. I’m not a sociable traveller by nature. I’m a headphones sort of girl however I’m realising that independent travel only works if you are willing to take those headphones off and smile and mix a bit; I always have to make an effort to mix. My partner is the opposite so between us we get to know who we want to, and not those we don’t take to. We then headed out for a wander with camera in hand, or rather back-pack to be safe. I always feel a little paranoid at first until we get the ‘feel’ of the place however the friendship shines through and we were soon happily braving the roads and browsing the shops.
The most important advice is ‘don’t run across the road’ we soon relaxed into it, they can avoid you, and will do if you walk. They don’t like you heading at speed in some unknown direction. A car horn in UK is used with aggression and often a swear word or three; in Vietnam it is more out of courtesy a sort of ‘hey I’m here, be careful’ type of way, an almost apologetic polite toot instead of a forceful blast in Europe, maybe naively we felt safer crossing the roads there than in Yorkshire although the looking five ways at once including on the pavements was obligatory.
Whilst walking around the lake it soon became apparent that it is a lucky place, numerous brides and grooms very being photographed with temple and bridge forming the scenic backdrop.
Viet coffee is awesome, their speciality, although I usually drink it black we soon adopted the local condensed milk option, never had too much and yes we brought lots home, coffee that is not milk. We were sidelined by a group of about 20 students, all desperate to speak with us to pick up snippets of English and add to their knowledge; it occurred to me how comparatively ignorant we are in the UK, how we take free education for granted. I couldn’t even imagine how amazing our country would improve if we embraced learning and world languages in such a keen and open manner. If only.
In the evening we ate at a recommended restaurant, most were hidden above shops and in hindsight we should have researched this a little better either before hand or with locals. Mango was the venue and I can’t fault the food or service; catfish tastes great although not sure you’re supposed to eat a ‘bottom feeder’. The restaurant is apparently a favourite of Gordon Ramsey, and maybe the price range reflects that so after the mild panic of ‘how much’ we embraced the evening with travelling companions, avoided pudding and left early to avoid hefty drinks bill.
We treated ourselves to a cycle taxi ride home, the poor guy nearly collapsed with the weight of us two crammed into one cycle, he ripped us off but as he probably needed heart treatment after the trek due to his age and frailty so we didn’t mind. Money well earned despite the inflated price on arrival compared to the quote. Sometimes, especially when a few locals turn up to support their own it’s better to smile and accept the price with grace, discretion is the better part of valour.
The journey meant we didn’t need rocking to sleep that night, and after a lovely shower in a bathroom which was as luxurious as any provided at a Premier Inn we filled our boots with rice and vegetables at breakfast. Isn’t it funny how you can be so imaginative with food on holiday and so stuck in your muesli and toast ways at home!
Next on the agenda, Halong Bay, if you travel to Halong Bay from Hanoi on your own I can recommend calling at the tapestry / embroidery / sculpture centre on the way, it is supportive of women with disabilities and sells the most intricate embroidery. Their patience and skill was humbling, I hope they truly were cared for.
We settled for a small black and white picture of a stereotypical scene. We have committed to supporting locals with purchases where possible, as well as only buying things we actually want and need. We knew exactly where this picture would go. The same shop had massive statues and we very nearly spent cash on one for the garden, they are still calling to me via the internet, the quality was excellent, as was the price.
Luckily the bay had ‘reopened’ after a storm the day before, we weren’t aware that the governor decides on when you can go, or can’t, due to safety in bad weather. Phew, so glad he let us visit.